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Thursday, June 20, 2024

UAE Tourism more than just sun, sand and shopping malls

by W. Lowe

© Shutterstock

Business, Events, Medical and Eco-Tourism – Dubai has these days become a popular destination for different types of tourism.

The UAE has in recent years firmly established itself as one of the holiday hot spots in the world. Not only has it been rated as the top tourist destination in the MENA region, Abu Dhabi, its capital, has been ranked in the top 10 ‘Most searched-for places in the world’ by the online travel agency site, Expedia, giving it the same ranking as New Zealand, Argentina and China – not bad for a small city which until 50 years ago was relatively unknown in many parts of the world.

But while tourists flock to the UAE each year to experience the culture, the climate and the vast range of entertainment amenities, there is more to the country than sun, sea and sand.

In fact in recent years, the UAE has been focusing its marketing campaigns on other types of tourism. Instead of sun drenched shores and busy malls, it’s been increasingly drawing attention to its world-class business facilities; the plethora of events taking place and the growing health tourism industry, in a bid to attract a wider demographic.

Business Tourism

With the completion of a number of key buildings and a focused effort on attracting international conferences, exhibitions and seminars, tourism has been steadily gaining ground over the last few years. “The UAE has built up its facilities to attract major business events such as conventions and exhibitions. Dubai and Abu Dhabi in particular, now have excellent convention and exhibition centres and a range of hotels in the 4 and 5 star categories. This has helped to increase the number of visitors to business events,” says Rohit Talwar, CEO of Fast Future, a research and consultancy company that specialises in the tourist industry.

And while Dubai has the best track record for attracting business tourists, Abu Dhabi has become more prominent in this respect since the opening of the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC) in August 2005, as well as a large number of business oriented hotels.

“ADNEC has provided another high quality facility in the region and offered business event owners a choice in where to host their convention or trade shows. The competition between facilities is a positive thing as it drives innovation; something which the convention bureaus in Abu Dhabi and Dubai have responded to in particularly imaginative ways. They now have a world class range of support, and incentives to attract leading global events,” says Talwar.

ADNEC regulary hosts internationally renowned events such as IDEX, one of the world’s largest defence exhibitions and the World Green Tourism Congress.

In fact, according to Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Authority (ADTA) last year, 72 per cent of all visitors to the emirate came for business related tourism. This year will see a 15 per cent growth in business related visitors.

In Dubai, the Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC) sees a constant stream of international trade events such as Cityscape – an international real estate exhibition and Gulfood – one of the world’s biggest food and hospitality exhibitions. And the venue is undergoing an expansion that will see more than 20 new towers being built as part of the Dubai World Trade Centre District development project. Dubai is also in the process of building Dubai Exhibition City (DEC) a facility for hosting large scale exhibitions which, once completed, will put the city’s convention capacities on a new level.

Besides these conference centres, Dubai is home to 573 hotels and hotel apartment blocks, most of which have their own conference halls and offer attractive corporate packages. According to Adrian Deegan, Director of Sales at Rotana Hotels, which have branches throughout the region, nine per cent of their guests come for, what are known in the industry as MICE (Meeting, Incentive; Conventions and Exhibition) events; the amount of leisure tourists stand at 18 per cent; while business tourism makes up the rest.

Event Tourism in the UAE

It’s not just traditional tourists and those doing business here that are attracted to the UAE.

A whole slew of world class events have been aimed at drawing people en masse. “Events tourism enhances what is already available in Dubai. When an event in a destination ties in with a group’s incentive key objectives, the company will increase its budget and extend the group's stay. Events also increase the appeal of an incentive programme,” says Justine Thomas-Butler, the Group and Incentives Manager at Arabian Adventures – a locally based travel agent.

Tourism figures in Abu Dhabi have been boosted in recent years by events such as the Abu Dhabi Formula 1 – a world renowned car racing event; a series of concerts held at the newly finished Yas Island; the opening of Ferrari World – a theme park based around the Italian supercar, which houses the world’s fastest roller coaster; and other sporting events, such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) – the world’s largest Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) event, which attracted more than 10,000 spectators last year.

Adrian Deegan explains: “Our biggest event in Abu Dhabi is the Formula 1, during which all our hotels are fully booked. There is not much corporate business at this time because companies know it’s going to be difficult to get hotel rooms. When there is a concert, for example we are normally full for two nights. Our guests are mainly UAE residents and people from neighbouring GCC countries”.

In Dubai, sporting events such the Dubai World Cup, attended by an average of 50,000 spectators, the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship and the Dubai Desert Classic, as well as the International Jazz Festival and the Dubai Shopping Festival also boost the city’s profile and lead to increased hotel occupancy.

Medical Tourism

Medical tourism is when people travel overseas in search of cheaper healthcare or cosmetic surgery. It’s a type of tourism which has become increasingly popular in the UAE.

According to a report by Dr Prem Jagyasi, the UAE is one of 35 countries in the world listed as a medical tourist destination. Though still very much at a nascent stage, the country has been pulling out all the stops to put itself on the medical tourist map.

Moves such as the introduction of therapy resorts and medical centres, the offering of packages with favourable prices and the hosting of a number of high profile international medical conferences have all contributed to boosting the country’s presence in the competitive world of medical tourism.

In the last few years more than 14 hospitals across the UAE have been accredited by the Joint Commission International (JCI), one of the world’s leading accreditation organisations.

The American Hospital, the first JCI accredited hospital in the UAE performed 40 per cent of its knee surgeries on international patients last year alone. The growing industry does however face tough competition from nearby destinations which are already established as medical tourism destinations.

Countries such as India, Thailand and Singapore offer medical care and procedures for just 10 per cent of the price it would cost to do a similar procedure in the US. And while the UAE is cheaper than the United States, it’s still a third of the cost, in comparision to a tenth.

But according to Dr Prem Jagyasi, it’s not about cost. “The UAE medical tourism market is not a price-saving market, it’s a quality service market,” he says. “Since the UAE provides high end healthcare services with personalised care, it’s not possible for Asian providers to compete on cost.

The target market in the UAE includes those who are looking for quality services in dental, cosmetic and elective surgical procedures, as well as general check-ups and diagnostics,” he adds.


The UAE has never had a great track record when it comes to being eco-friendly, however in recent years Abu Dhabi, its capital, has been pushing an eco agenda in a bid to catch up with the western world on the Green front, while at the same time attract more environmentally conscious tourists.

Eco resorts in the region include Sir Bani Yas Island, a once uninhabitable desert island off the coast of Abu Dhabi, which is now home to a growing number of Arabian oryx, gazelle, deer, dolphins and sea turtles. Visitors can stay in the onsite lodge and participate in various safari tours and educational activities, aimed at promoting the islands ecosystem and natural wildlife.

The Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing has also in recent years formed an Environmental Advisory Board and launched an environmental programme which aims to reduce its hotel carbon emissions by 20 per cent in a number of 5-star properties around the city.

It also hosts the Dubai Green Tourism Awards which one given to hotels and hospitality companies for their environmentally- friendly business practices. In general by focusing on the development of a variety of types of tourism, the UAE is experiencing greater footfall than if it had confined itself to the shopping and beach crowd alone.

What’s more, the country is clearly confident of its ability to keep on attracting tourists as is evident from the number of resorts and hotels that are due to open over the next few years. The future looks bright for UAE tourism.

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